Orange shockwave: How Ontario got its first-ever NDP government

The party’s unexpected 1990 election victory stunned everyone — including leader Bob Rae
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on May 31, 2018
Conservative leader Mike Harris (left), NDP leader Bob Rae (centre), and Liberal leader David Peterson (right) before an August 1990 leaders’ debate in Toronto. (Hans Deryk/CP)

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This is the sixth in a series of articles detailing the elections that shaped Ontario.

Seconds into his speech launching an election campaign on July 30, 1990, Premier David Peterson was interrupted. Greenpeace activist (and future Toronto city councillor) Gord Perks approached Peterson’s desk with an object handcuffed to his wrist. The premier’s wife thought her husband might be in danger — but the object was a tape recorder, playing a list of five reasons activists were upset with the Liberal government’s environmental record. Perks pressed Peterson for answers, holding up the press conference for several minutes before stepping aside.

Shocked and sweating, Peterson told the audience, “It’s going to be an interesting campaign.”

David Peterson's 1990 election campaign launch was interrupted by then-Greenpeace activist Gord Perks.

He was right, but that wouldn’t work to the Liberals’ benefit. Over the course of the 37-day campaign, Peterson failed to convince voters that he had been right to call an election only three years after winning an overwhelming majority. That, combined with an existing scandal, targeted protests by groups angry with the government, and the suggestion of political entitlement resulted in Ontario’s first NDP government.

During that opening press conference, Peterson struggled to provide a convincing explanation for the early election. He claimed that, especially after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Ontario faced “profound changes in this country and the world” and that he needed to protect the province in the event of a national-unity crisis. He dismissed suggestions that he was being an opportunist and trying to capitalize on polling results that put Liberal support at 50 per cent. “There is no good time,” he said. “I don’t have to apologize for consultation with the people at this time.”

Despite strong voter support, the Liberals were facing a number of challenges: unemployment rates were rising, the economy was on the downturn, and the government had become embroiled in a scandal — Patti Starr, a party fundraiser, had been accused of violating campaign finance laws involving charities, giving the opposition parties an issue to hammer away at during the first half of 1990. (Starr was later convicted of election fraud and breach of trust.) The Starr affair created a perception of widespread corruption within the Liberal government.

The opposition sensed that Peterson would quickly run to the polls. The NDP had been devastated by the results of the 1987 election, which Rae felt had been an indictment of its decision to work with the Liberals. Privately, he believed that 1990 would be his last campaign as party leader. Advisers wanted him to aggressively attack the government’s record. According to strategist David Reville, the idea was to show that “Peterson listens to the fat cats, he doesn’t listen to you, we will listen to you.” After Peterson’s opening press conference, Rae told the press that the only people the premier and his party listened to were “the interests of the developers and speculators, the landlords and the private-profit operators that have benefitted consistently from this government because of their special relationship with it.” Once the campaign was underway, Rae seemed far more confident and relaxed than he had been during the previous two elections — but even he believed the NDP had little chance of forming the next government.

The Progressive Conservatives were in rough shape. The party was broke. Since their stinging defeat in the 1987 election, they’d been led on an interim basis by Andy Brandt. They were also affected by the plummeting popularity of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The expectation that there would be an election prompted a leadership contest in May, which was decided by a membership vote instead of a delegated convention. The winner was house leader Mike Harris, who found common cause with a group of younger party members intent on taking advantage of the power vacuum and steering the PCs to the right. “They were engaged by his affability, his ability to forge consensus, his social ease. Harris was energized by their youthful zeal and dedication,” observed journalist John Ibbitson. “They found that they liked and respected each other more than a middle-brow former businessman and a bunch of hot-headed intellectuals should have.” Harris’s general-election campaign team included both new blood and old party veterans, all of whom had decided that their best bet would be to campaign as tax cutters and to attack Liberal tax hikes. Harris, who nicknamed himself “The Taxfighter,” proved a stiff, stilted campaigner. Polling indicated the PCs might win as few as four seats.

On the campaign trail, Peterson felt heat from groups the government had previously worked closely with. In the wake of Greenpeace’s stunt with Perks, several activist organizations, public sector federations, and unions organized teams to disrupt campaign appearances. Proposed changes to the teachers’ pension formula led public and Catholic federations to work together for the first time ever: the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation called for a minority government. OPSEU, angered by the downloading and privatization of some public services, organized “SWAT teams” to harass Peterson. The Ontario Medical Association, for its part, was upset over changes ranging from billing to the licensing of facilities to offer services previously the purview of hospitals. The list went on and on. Liberals often responded by yelling back or insulting the protesters, which only served to increase public dissatisfaction with the party.

With Liberal popularity declining, the NDP scrambled to create a platform. The result, Agenda for People, escaped scrutiny until late in the race because the party’s chances had seemed dim: it promised to increase the minimum wage and educational spending, offer 10,000 non-profit health-care spaces, freeze income and sales taxes, and impose tighter rent controls.

As the NDP gained momentum, the Liberals panicked. Candidates removed Peterson from their campaign materials. Hasty promises, like reducing the sales tax, were made. Peterson felt that the Liberals’ decline reflected greater anxieties about the world and that the party had failed to successfully communicate his government’s accomplishments. The campaign theme went from “Effective leadership for a strong Ontario” to “Warning: An NDP government will be hazardous to your health.” Peterson even suggested that “children would starve in the streets” under the NDP. It didn’t work. “As Peterson became more strident,” Toronto Sun columnist Michael Bennett observed, “Rae assumed an almost statesman-like attitude. He’d used up most of the venom early in the campaign. Now he didn’t need it.”

The results of the September 6, 1990, vote stunned everyone. The NDP swept into office, gaining 37.6 percent of the vote and going from 19 seats to 74. The Liberals fell from 93 seats to 36, while the PCs went from 17 to 20. Pundits scrambled to account for the results. The Globe and Mail’s Michael Valpy referenced a term that had frequently been applied to Peterson during the campaign: yuppie. “Whether or not the Liberals were a yuppie government,” he wrote, “they looked like a yuppie government, the Premier looked like a yuppie premier and the troubles they got into over election financing and links to the development industry were real 1980s yuppie problems.”

One factor that contributed to the NDP’s seat count was the strong showing of fringe parties, such as the anti-bilingualism/multiculturalism Confederation of Regions and the anti-abortion Family Coalition Party. A then-record 614 candidates ran during the election, and minor parties and independents received 6.6 per cent of the vote. A third of NDP seats were won with less than 40 per cent of the vote.

Peterson became the first sitting premier to lose his seat since George Drew in 1948 — London Centre went to the NDP’s Marion Boyd. “I saw the looks of people’s faces in London,” Peterson’s mother Marie told a campaign official on election night. “They were pained looks, and I knew he shouldn’t call an election.” Peterson resigned as party leader. Referring back to the opening day of the campaign, he joked, “I had no idea it was going to be this interesting.” He later said, “My single greatest regret in politics is the failure of Meech, not the loss of the election.”

At his victory party, Rae admitted how surprised he’d been by the outcome. “I didn’t expect this result. The lesson from this election is that the public trust must be earned. I am well aware that in the election victory we have been given tonight, we are only just beginning to earn that trust. And we must continue to work every day to earn it, each and every working day.”

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters. 

Sources: Not Without Cause by Georgette Gagnon and Dan Rath (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1991); Loyal No More: Ontario’s Struggle for a Separate Destiny by John Ibbitson (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2001); Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution by John Ibbitson (Toronto: Prentice Hall, 1997); Paikin and the Premiers by Steve Paikin (Toronto: Dundurn, 2013); From Protest to Power by Bob Rae (Toronto: Penguin, 1997); Ontario Since 1985 by Randall White (Toronto: Eastendbooks, 1998); the July 31, 1990 and September 7, 1990 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 7, 1990 edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the July 31, 1990, August 24, 1990, and September 4, 1990 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 2, 1990 and September 7, 1990 editions of the Toronto Sun.

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